Would you vote for a candidate who admitted past drug use? That was the question this week after Lois Romano pointed out that, in his autobiography (published 11 years ago), Barack Obama talked about his use of cocaine and marijuana as a young man.
When I asked my callers whether — politics aside — that would be a disqualifier for their vote, only two callers said it would, while everyone else said it wouldn’t matter at all. That vast majority also praised Obama for his honesty, pointing out that both our current president and his predecessor dodged and weaseled their way around questions about their youthful consumption of narcotics (Clinton famously claimed he hadn’t inhaled, while Bush pulled a McGwire and refused to talk about the past).
Of course, that only applies to previous drug use. No one who is still openly using illegal drugs could get elected to anything in this country, with the possible exception of President of the Willie Nelson Fan Club.
But what about legal drugs like, say, nicotine? Could a cigarette smoker be elected president, governor, senator, or congressman?
In America, we’re told as children that anyone can grow up to be President Of The United States. As adults, we know that’s not true. To this point, you could only get the job if you were a white man. While that may change in this century, there will remain certain absolute disqualifiers in the American public’s mind (for instance, no atheist has even a remote shot at the job). Is being an “out” smoker one of those political poison pills?
You never see politicians smoking anywhere cameras are present, and it’s not just a matter of spending so much time in public buildings where smoking is banned. There must be many of them who still smoke (Obama is rumored to be a pack-a-day smoker, and Laura Bush is said to have snuck out to have a butt on occasion), but they only do it out of the public’s view, just like Jed Bartlett on “The West Wing” stepping out of the Oval Office to light up.
That wasn’t the case a couple of decades ago — the cover photo of the current Newsweek shows the late Gerald Ford smoking a pipe — but the smoking climate is markedly different now.
It’s as if politicians have seen some focus group research showing that smoking has become so unpopular, that the simple visual of a politician holding a cigarette would be enough to dissuade Americans from voting for them.
Several of my callers did express distrust of smokers, questioning their judgement on other matters if they couldn’t see how bad tobacco is for themselves. One listener said that, all things being equal, the fact that a candidate smokes might be the tipping point against them (in the next breath, he pointed out that all things are never equal). There’s also the question of how a smoker would vote on legislation relating to health matters, or to banning smoking in public places. But the majority of people I’ve heard from — smokers and non-smokers alike — say that, as long as tobacco is legal, its use would not be a factor in who gets their vote.
Still, I doubt you’ll see any of the 2008 candidates lighting up in public. It’s as anathema to them as screaming like Howard Dean.